Anyhoo, now that I've learned how to perform this miraculous function called "copy and paste"--thanks to my own personal Geek Squad guy, who also happens to be my husband--I thought I'd just go to my Word document archives and find something saved over there to transport over here. (I can't tell you enough how much I wish I'd let my IT specialist teach me how to "copy and paste" during the four and a half years I was working on my novel. I don't even want to talk about how much harder I made things for myself!)
Moving on, several years ago, I entered a short story in a Good Housekeeping fiction contest. Although it didn't win any prizes, I thought it might make for some enjoyable light reading for this blog. The GH contest rules stated that the story had to be 3,500 words or less (which kept me from being as long-winded as is my wont), and mine came in at exactly 3,500 words, including the two words in the title. Even though I didn't get to use as many words as I would have liked to tell this story, it's a tad long--so I'll give it to you in two installments.
(Before you get started, I just want to say that if you haven't read my novel Finding Grace, please don't judge it by this story! I think I do better when I'm allowed to use as many words as my little heart desires to say what I want to say!)
“These are out of this world, Rose. I’ve never tasted truffles like this! And I consider myself quite the chocolate connoisseur.”
Lucy poked through the bowl of round Belgian chocolates, which had foil wrappers that were color-coded to denote the different flavors, and chose a golden one this time (milk chocolate with a white chocolate center, Rose’s personal favorite), unwrapped it, and popped it into her mouth. “Mmm. Heaven,” she murmured as the rich, creamy chocolate melted on her tongue.
“I got them at an outlet over in
Rose explained, smiling.
“An outlet,” repeated Lucy.
“Yep. I don’t buy them very often, but when I do have them in the house, I have to hide them or they disappear in a heartbeat. The boys almost always manage to ferret out my hiding places, though, the little hooligans. And John’s not much better. In fact, I think he’s the worst offender of them all.” She threw her husband an impish look and winked at Peter, her oldest son, who loved nothing better than lingering at the dinner table and soaking up semi-mysterious adult conversation long after his younger brothers and cousins had grown bored and begged to be excused.
John couldn’t resist his wife’s wholesome, full-cheeked face, with those almost transparent green eyes that crinkled into slits when she smiled (the rosy, glowing face that had captured his heart back in high school and held it captive, in spite of four long years of separation during college), and he squeezed Rose’s leg just above the knee. He knew this was her killer ticklish spot. He knew her inside out, forward, backward, and upside down, and he adored every inch of her.
Rose let out a yelp of laughter and pulled the offending hand away. She banged her knee into the dining room table—though thankfully, none of her mother’s precious Lenox china or Waterford crystal fell victim to her clumsiness—and then she blushed, a tad embarrassed by this exhibition of shameless flirtation between her handsome husband of ten years and herself. John suppressed a smile.
“Anyway, they’re normally so expensive. Well, even at the outlet, they’re a bit much…but only the best for you guys!” bubbled Rose, looking around the table at the rest of the family.
“It must be nice to have the leisure time to locate candy outlets,” Lucy replied pointedly, with a smile that didn’t quite reach her large hazel eyes.
The most banal-sounding comment could often be intended as a lethal salvo when it came from her little sister’s lips. Yet as usual, Rose was hit blindside, and her cheeks turned an even deeper shade of crimson.
“Pass that bowl of chocolatey goodness down this way!” ordered Rose’s brother Jim, the middle child and family comedian. Any building tension in the room was completely lost on him.
Rose’s mother frowned slightly, as if to say, “Not again,” but she quickly recovered and chirped, “Would anyone like some cheesecake?”
Peace was what Maggie Flaherty desired most now when her whole brood was together; and even back in their childhood days, her tendency had been to ignore unpleasantness whenever possible, to smooth any rough waters, to pretend that all was well, even when it wasn’t. Rose and Lucy used to joke that their beautiful, raven-haired mother was a dead ringer for Vivien Leigh playing Scarlett O’Hara, complete with Scarlett’s trademark, airy “fiddle-dee-dee’s” and her inability to face her worries and problems head-on, preferring to think about them tomorrow. But that was when they were young girls, allies rather than adversaries. Rose couldn’t pinpoint exactly when their roles had changed.
Under the table, John patted Rose’s thigh gently in a show of support (he could read her every thought); but still, she felt about two inches tall. She’d naively thought that she and Lucy were having a simple friendly conversation about something as benign and trifling as chocolate truffles, and then—wham! Lucy’s insinuation was clear: “Stay-at-home moms do nothing all day long but lounge around, watching soaps and eating bon-bons.” (Lucy had in fact said that once to Rose, ostensibly as a joke.)
As always, despite their history together, Rose was caught off guard by her sister’s soft-spoken rancor. If she hadn’t been so taken aback that she was rendered effectively speechless, she might have tried to lob back a funny rejoinder to ease the tension, something like, “Well, as long as I’m going to be eating bon-bons all day, I want top-notch bon-bons.”
It was probably a good thing that Rose could never seem to think of the perfect snappy comebacks to her sister’s comments until hours or days later; because even though she imagined how satisfying it would feel to stand up for herself, she knew that she would ultimately end up feeling worse for having said anything.
Sometimes, it seemed that even the simplest demonstration of affection between Rose and John, or the most innocent offhand remark from Rose about the unparalleled joy she derived from the vocation of motherhood, could make Lucy bare her fangs and hurl veiled insults in Rose’s direction. Lucy could always find something to snipe about—or something to make Rose feel guilty about. Rose was sorry that Lucy wasn’t one hundred percent pleased with the way her own life had turned out; you didn’t need to be a mind reader to see that, since Lucy spent far too much time complaining about a myriad of perceived injustices and inequities instead of counting her many blessings.
But Rose was getting tired of being the prime target for Lucy’s razor-sharp arrows of bitterness and envy.
“She makes me feel like I have to constantly explain myself. To validate my life,” Rose whispered later that night, as she and John were climbing into the saggy double bed that had been hers when she was growing up in this house.
Rose could hear the soft breathing of Mikey, their six-month-old, as he slept in a port-a-crib close by. Three-year-old Jack was on a make-shift bed composed of a couple of couch cushions lined up against the wall, fast asleep with his thumb in his mouth. The three oldest boys were enjoying a long-anticipated camp-out with their cousins in Grandma’s basement, with crazy Uncle Jimmy playing the part of Scoutmaster.
“Don’t let her get to you, Rosie,” John said mildly.
“Believe me, I know how fortunate I am to be able to stay home with the boys. I’m so grateful, and I thank God for that gift every day. I thank God for you.”
“Well, who wouldn’t?” quipped John.
“Really, though. I know how lucky I am that you make enough to support us so that I have this choice. But I’m even luckier because I know that you would let me choose to stay home, even if we had to struggle and scrape by. You would never force me to work if I didn’t want to…and it would kill me to leave the boys every day. I’d give up just about anything, any material thing, to be home with them.”
“I know, and I’m right with you, Rose.”
“I mean, I’d homeschool them if we couldn’t afford the tuition at Saint Patrick’s. I would.”
“You may have to yet,” he teased.
“But Lucy treats me as if I’m just some ridiculous, pampered, spoiled princess,” said Rose, her soft voice slightly tremulous.
“She’s just jealous of you, that’s all. She wants your life—even though if she had it, she’d think there was greener grass somewhere else. That’s just Lucy.”
“She really seems disgusted with me, though. I feel like she truly believes I’m kinda worthless because I don’t have a job and a paycheck. And she thinks the money Mom and Dad spent on my college education was completely wasted. That she should have gotten it instead of me. That still bugs her, and she won’t let it go.”
Although Rose believed deep in her soul that a college education was more than mere job training and invaluable for its own sake, she did often feel a nagging guilt that she was the one with the four-year degree when Lucy was the one who could have really used it. Lucy had an associate’s degree from a community college and worked full-time as an office manager in a law firm. She was good at her job and made sure that everyone knew it; but Rose was fairly certain that if Lucy could go back and do things over, she would jump at the opportunity to finish college and maybe even go on to law school. However, it was all water under the bridge now, as far as Rose was concerned. They’d both made their choices long ago. In anyone’s book, both of them had lives that could only be qualified as comfortable and successful; so why did her sister have to keep beating a dead horse?
“You know, it’s funny,” observed John quietly, “Women are supposed to have all these choices these days; yet there seems to be this ongoing war between mothers who work outside the home and those who don’t.”
Just as Rose was about to say, “Let’s forget all this—I don’t want to feel lousy on Christmas,” Mikey stirred in his crib. He’d been sleeping through the night routinely since he was two months old; with four older brothers aged eight, six, five, and three, he was a champ at being able to sleep like a rock through all kinds of racket, to the point that she and John had even wondered for a time if he’d been born deaf. But Mikey wasn’t used to his new surroundings yet, and he’d woken up crying several times last night. Between that and sons number two and three, Matt and Tommy, creeping in every hour on the hour—from 2:00 a.m. until daybreak!—to check if Santa had come yet and to ask if they could peek at the presents under the tree, none of them had gotten much shut-eye.
Rose put her finger to her lips. Then she leaned over the side of the bed and peeked into the crib. When she saw that Mikey was peacefully settled once more, she looked at John and ran the back of her hand across her forehead, mouthing a silent, exaggerated “Phew!” Then she smiled the unmatched smile that always undid her husband.
John was struck by how beautiful his wife’s face looked in the moonlight that was streaming through the window and spilling over the faded blue chenille bedspread. He reached over and put his hand on her cheek—a gesture that invariably made Rose feel undeservedly cherished, blessed beyond measure…and as breathless as the lovesick teenager she’d been when they first started dating. He had done it for the first time when they were both sixteen; and sixteen years later, his touch still gave her chills.
“Rose, you owe no one any apologies,” John said quietly. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If the whole world thinks you’re nothing, who cares? You’re everything to the boys and me.”
“Okay, you’re my hero—as always,” joked Rose, sotto voce, “and the only Christmas present I could ever want!”
“So…should I take the mother’s ring back?” he asked, feigning seriousness.
John had surprised her that morning with a gold ring encrusted with five oval birthstone gems, one to represent each of her boys. Her treasures. Her angels.
“Let me rephrase that,” said Rose; but before she could continue, her husband silenced her with a kiss.